ABRAHAM THE BARBER

Here is a Russian icon that appears to be from the Forefathers tier of an iconostasis:

We can tell from the inscription that it depicts
СВЯТЫЙ ПРАОТЕЦ МЕЛХИЗЕДЕКЪ
SVYATUIY PRAOTETS MELKHIZEDEK
“Holy Forefather Melchizedek”

Melchizedek is a mysterious figure, because while there is so little information about him in the Bible, he is nonetheless a part of significant doctrinal understanding of Jesus in the New Testament.

We first find him the the Old Testament, where he appears in Genesis 14:

18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth loaves and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God. 19 And he blessed Abram, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, who made heaven and earth, 20 and blessed be the most high God who delivered your enemies into your power. And Abram gave him the tithe of all.

Next in Psalm 109 (110 KJV):

1 The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. 2 The Lord shall send out a rod of power for you out of Sion: rule in the midst of your enemies. 3 With you is dominion in the day of your power, in the splendors of your saints: I have begotten you from the womb before the morning. 4 The Lord swore, and will not repent, You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.

And we find him in the New Testament book of Hebrews, which makes a rather lengthy and wordy connection of Melchizedek with Jesus in chapter 7 — too long to include here.

In the icon, we see Abraham wearing a crown and omophorion (the stole around his neck), holding a tray on which are loaves of bread.

What I want to note today, however, is found in the odd scroll text given him here:

It says basically that God sent Abraham to Melchizedek to “cut my hair” — Ostrizhe vlasui moy.

“Cut my hair”?  There is nothing whatsoever about Abraham cutting Melchizedek’s hair in the Bible.  But as you all should know by now, when information was lacking — whether in the Bible or out of it — people just made things up.  There are apocryphal writings in which Abraham cuts Melchizedek’s hair — the so-called “Apocrypha of Melchizedek.” One version of the story is found in the Byzantine-Slavic  text Palea Historia — “Old [Testment] History.”

The tale, which has variations, relates basically that Melchizedek was one of two sons of a king of Salem.  The king asked him to bring oxen to sacrifice to the gods, but Melchizedek tried to convince his father to sacrifice instead to the God of Heaven.  His father was unhappy, and decided to sacrifice Melchizedek to the gods instead.  Melchizedek prayed to God that the city and its worshippers and idols would be destroyed, and God caused an earthquake that swallowed up all the city and its people.  Melchizedek went to Mount Tabor, where he lived as an ascetic hermit on wild plants and water.  However, God sent Abraham to find Melchizedek — who by that time had hair down to his feet and very long nails.  Abraham met Melchizedek and cut his long hair and trimmed his nails.  Melchizedek and Abraham then worshipped the “most high God,” and Melchizedek blessed Abraham.

So that is how the scroll in today’s icon has Melchizedek oddly saying that Abraham “cut my hair.”

There is a cave chapel on Mount Tabor that in Medieval times was often considered by pilgrims to be the dwelling of Melchizedek.

THE VASILKOVSKAYA ICON

In a previous posting, I discussed how to distinguish icons of Mary that depict several swords at her breast, and mentioned one single-sword type.

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/swords-and-softening-hearts-a-confusing-group-of-icons/

Today we will look at another Mary-sword icon, but again this time with only one sword.

The icon is called the Vasilkovskaya (Васильковская).  Here is an example in the manner characteristic of the late 19th-early 20th century:

Let’s look at the title inscription at the base:


It reads:  ВАСИЛЬКОВСКАЯ ИКОНА Б[О]ЖИЙ М[А]Т[Е]РИ
  VASIL’KOVSKAYA IKONA BOZHIY MATERI
[The] VASILKOVSKAYA ICON [of the] MOTHER OF GOD

Note that in English we have to reverse the last two words, which literally are Bozhiy Materi — “God-of Mother.”

Now as we know, most of these Marian icons have origin stories.  Here is that of the Vasilkovskaya:

In the 15th century, there was a town called Vasilkovo (Васильково/Wasilków) a few miles from what is now Bialystok in northeastern Poland.  At that time, a blind fellow named Vasily was wandering abandoned through the thick forests of the vicinity, hungry and worn out.  He fell to the ground and went to sleep on a hill high above a river, and as he slept, he dreamed.

In his dream, Mary came to him and told him to brush aside the leaves on the ground, dig into the sand, and there he would find water that would heal him if he washed his eyes with it.

He did as he was told, found the hidden water, washed his eyes with it, and according to the legend, his sight was restored (compare this with the Catholic tale of Bernadette and Lourdes).  As his sight came back, he saw before him an icon of Mary as he had seen her in his dream vision.  It was on canvas rather than wood.

Vasiliy dug out a well there and put a protective shelter over it, and in it he placed the newly-appeared icon of Mary.

The story continues by relating that in the early 18th century, a different Vasiliy (possibly Vasily Samotyją Lenczewskim) — who was involved with a paper factory — had lost his sight, but was told in a dream that he would be healed by praying before the icon at the spring.  He followed the instructions of his dream vision, and he too was supposedly healed.  He built a wooden chapel over the site in 1719.  The place was called  Svyataya Voda (Святая вода) — “Holy  Water.”  In 1864 the wooden church was replaced with a stone church.  The icon was venerated both by Uniates and by Russian Orthodox.

Now it is rather obvious that this icon is akin to the many Mater Dolorosa (“Sorrowful Mother”) images popular in the Catholic West.  Variants of the image depicting Mary with a single sword in her breast appear under various titles, including Симеоново проречение — Simeonovo Prorechenie — the “Prediction/Prophecy of Simeon” and И Тебе Самой душу пройдет оружие — I tebe Samoy dushu proidet oruzhie — ” A sword shall pierce through your own soul also.”  These titles, as we have seen in an earlier posting, may also be found on icons of Mary with multiple swords.

There is also a more complex icon type featuring Mary with a single sword, standing by the crucifixion of Jesus (who may or may not be on the cross), and accompanied by the various symbols of the Passion.  This type is generally given the title Плач при Кресте — Plach pri Kreste — “Weeping at the Cross.”  It too obviously derives from the “Prophecy of Simeon” in Luke 2:35.

Be aware, however, that similar icons may be found minus the sword, as in this example, titled simply Плачь Пресвятыя Богородицы — Plach Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “[The] Weeping of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there is a little-known icon type called the Strastnaya Lipetskaya (Страстная Липецкая), which depicts Mary much as she is shown in the “Weeping at the Cross” type — often also with the instruments of the Passion.  But in this case the distinguishing features of the type are first, that the single sword is on the cross to the right of and behind Mary, rather than shown against her breast; and second, she holds a white cloth in her left hand.

Tradition relates that the “Lipetsk-Passion” icon was kept in the Nativity of Christ Cathedral in the city of Lipetsk, in what was then Tambov Province.  In 1831 the icon is said to have broken a plague of cholera that had spread in the region.

ANIMALS IN ICONS — AN 18TH CENTURY DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

When we find saints in icons who are somewhat generic in appearance and not easily identifiable, the reason is often that they are the “name” saints of members of the family that ordered the icon. Those saints are frequently among the less known and less popular figures in the Russian Orthodox calendar.  Sometimes, however, there are generic-appearing saints who are on an icon not because they are “name” saints of members of the family, but because they are among the “special needs” saints — those saints who took the place of the old pre-Christian gods by specializing in certain services to Orthodox believers — for example, sending rain or dealing with a toothache.

Today’s icon features two of those generic-appearing but “special needs” saints.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

As painted here, the two could be twin brothers.  Not only are their faces, hair and beards remarkably similar, they are even dressed identically in the same garments of the same colors, and both hold identical Gospel books.

We can see from their garments — particularly the long stole called an omofor/omomphorion each wears about the neck, as well as from the book each has in hand, that they are bishops of some kind.  But what are two bishops doing at opposite sides of an icon with lots of animals and a well between them?

It is, of course, easy to identify the figure of Jesus in the clouds above — something that is a very common addition to icons of saints.  But let’s look more closely at the saints themselves to see if we can identify them.

Certainly we cannot do so by appearance alone in this case.  There are lots of bishops with long beards in Russian iconography.  That means we shall have to read the title inscriptions that identify each.

First, the fellow on the left:


His Church Slavic title reads:
СВЯТЫЙ ВЛАСИЙ ЕПИСКОПЪ СЕВАСТИЙский
SVYATUIY VLASIY EPISCOP SEVASTIYSKIY
“HOLY VLASIY BISHOP [of] SEBASTE”

Note how the writer ran out of space, so wrote the last part of the last word in smaller letters below the end of the first part.

Now the fellow on the right:

His title reads:

СВЯТЫЙ МЕДОСТЪ ПАТРИАРХЪ …
SVYATUIY MEDOST PATRIARKH …
“HOLY MEDOST PATRIARCH …

And then in small letters written below due to lack of space is the rest of his title:
иерусалимский
IERUSALIMSKIY
“…OF JERUSALEM.”

So all together, he is:

СВЯТЫЙ МЕДОСТЪ ПАТРИАРХЪ ИЕРУСАЛИМСКИЙ
SVYATUIY MEDOST PATRIARKH IERUSALIMSKIY
“HOLY MEDOST PATRIARCH OF JERUSALEM.”

Now that we have identified both saints, let’s look at the scene between them:

Below some stylized hills among which are a few trees, we see a group of goats, and below them some cattle, and below them is a well.  But what are those two creatures below the well and beside the stream?

First, we see a horned serpent/dragon:

Notice that Vlasiy is stepping on the dragon’s tail.

Just to the right of the dragon is a dog, but we can tell from his fiery-looking tongue that he is not an ordinary dog:

What does all this mean?  Well, it goes back to traditions associated with each saint.

In the old Slavic world, Veles/Volos was the god of cattle.  Because the name was so similar to that of the old 4th century bishop of Sebaste Vlasiy/Blasios/Blaise — who was said to have been kind to animals — Vlasiy took over the duties of Veles/Volos as the people became Christianized.  So in Russia, Vlasiy became a saint one invoked for protection of livestock.

Have you recalled yet that we have seen these two saints before, in the discussion of a previous icon?

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/medost-of-jerusalem/

If so, you may recall the reason for the dragon and the dog.  Here it is again:

A demonic serpent is said to have killed animals in Jerusalem by poisoning the water with his venom. Medost/Modest got rid of him.  It is also said that Modest once adjured the devil, who had appeared in the shape of a dog.

You may also remember that Medost is associated with the healing of oxen:

It is said that a poor widowed woman was very distressed because her five pairs of oxen were seriously ill. Distraught, she prayed in tears to the “unmercenary” saints Comas And Damian to heal her oxen. However, Cosmas appeared to her in a dream telling her essentially that the healing of oxen was not in his job description:

“O woman, we are not empowered by God to give healing to cattle. This grace is given to Modest, the great hierarch of Jerusalem. He — if you approach him — will heal your oxen.”

Now not being able to find him directly, she began to pray earnestly to Medost/Modest. He then appeared to her in a dream, saying:

“O woman, why are you so weeping? I am Modest, whom you seek, and hearing your prayer I appeared to make healthy your oxen.”

Sometimes Vlasiy or Medost/Modest/Modestus appear alone in icons, sometimes — as here — together, and at other times they are combined with other saints associated with animals, such as Flor and Lavr the patrons of horses, or even with other saints such as Nikolai/Nicholas.

Now oddly enough, the “Holy Governing Synod” that in 1721 took over the duties previously held by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia prohibited the depiction of cattle and horses and other animals and such creatures in icons in 1722.  They held that because one prayed before icons,  such non-human creatures had no place in them.  But as we have seen, such declarations could be ignored.  They would not have made any difference to the painter of this icon in any case, and if we look again at the image of Modest, we can see why:

Look at the position of the fingers in his blessing hand.  They are in the form used by the Old Believers, who did not accept the declarations of the State Church in Russia, but kept up the old ways.  They often used the position of the fingers on the blessing hand in their icons to verify that their icons were of the “pure” Old Belief, and not icons of the State Church, which they believed had fallen into heresy.  If you remember that important point, you will be able to distinguish many Old Believer icons from those of State Church painters.

As I have said before, polytheism never really ended in old Russia.  The people just transferred the duties of the old gods to the Christian deity and the saints we find in icons.

 

 

WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET

The medieval mindset is not dead.

If you happened to be passing a window, and noticed that the glass was distorted  with colorful blobs like oil on water — perhaps something like this…


what would you think?  Probably simply that the pane was flawed and needed to be replaced.  Not so in Russia.  What was seen there in the glass window pictured in the photo above was this:

That is the icon painted “from” the window blobs.  The blobs appeared — or at least were first noticed — on a window at the Church of the Martyr John the Warrior in Novokuznetsk, Siberia, in the year 2000.

Now as one can see, this is rather like a Rorschach test, in which what one sees in random ink blots depends on one’s personal psychological makeup.  Where an ordinary person will see blobs of color or variations in shading — whether on a window, a water-stained wall, or a burnt tortilla, a believer with a medieval mindset will see a miracle.  And that is what happened in this case.  The blobs on the window were considered a miraculous appearance, and when three years later a believer in the city of Kemerov claimed to have had a vision relating that an icon was to be painted from the “image” on the window, it was done by an iconographer named Vladimir Shubenkin.  And now that image is becoming increasingly popular in Russia as a new “miraculous” Marian icon known as the Чаша терпения/Chasha Terpeniya — “The Cup of Patience.”

It was even given an interpretation — that the icon represents the child Jesus being shown the “cup of suffering” representing his future Passion (arrest, torture, crucifixion and death), and so the child is to “drink the sins of humanity.”

Now to be fair, not everyone — even among Russian Orthodox clergy — accepts this new image at present as authentically “miraculous.” But many do, just as some Roman Catholic believers in the town of Rosenberg, near Houston, Texas, saw an appearance of an image of Mary in the pattern on the bricks of a rented house, visible when the porch light was turned on.  That happened as recently as February of 2019, and local believers there have been gathering to pray before the supposedly “miraculous” image of Mary.

This kind of medieval mindset explains a great deal about the history of various”miraculous” icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, and the pre-scientific thinking that gave rise to them.  The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung would likely say that such people are “projecting” their inner fantasies onto the outer, quite ordinary reality of wall or glass window, so what they are seeing is not what is really there, but rather what is in their own internal imaginations, given outer form by random patterns.  People have an innate tendency to place their own interpretations upon such patterns, as we see in the names and forms given star constellations from ancient times to the present.

 

 

MARY’S BELT

Here is a 16th century fresco image from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

As you see, it has no inscription.  If you are clever, you might recognize the traditional depictions of the apostles Peter and Paul in the foreground, but beyond that this image may mystify you.  Who is the little fellow at upper left, and what is he holding?  Well, it is another one of those relic stories so common in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The little fellow in the sky at upper left is the Apostle Thomas.  According to one variant of tradition, when the time came for Mary, mother of Jesus, to die, she requested to see the Twelve Apostles.  All of them arrived — brought on clouds in the sky — except Thomas, who was busy preaching in far-off India.  Thomas was only able to set off three days after her “dormition,” her “falling asleep,” the euphemistic term for her death.

Now it happened that while Thomas was on his way to Mary’s death — riding his “cloud taxi” — Mary had ascended to heaven.  She appeared to Thomas and dropped her belt down to him.

When Thomas arrived at the tomb, he showed the belt the ascended Mary had given him to the other apostles.  And that is what we see in this Athos fresco — Thomas, having arrived in his cloud at left, holds out the belt of Mary, showing it to the other apostles.  Mary’s closed tomb is in the foreground.  And of course the tale continues that when the apostles opened the tomb, it was empty — verifying the tale of Thomas that Mary had ascended to heaven.

In other variants of the tale, Thomas was already at the tomb of Mary when she dropped her belt down to him from heaven.  And yet another variant merely says the belt was given to two widows in Jerusalem before Mary’s “dormition.”

Now interestingly, the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos claims to have the belt Mary gave to Thomas.  But one need not go that far.  The Italian town of Prato — just a bit north of Florence — also has what is claimed to be the belt Mary gave to Thomas, kept in the Cathedral.  That is, unless you prefer to see as authentic the segment of the belt said to be kept by the Syriac Orthodox Church at the Church of the Holy Belt in Homs, Syria.  Other places have also claimed to have the relic.  But as we know, relics were a big business in byzantine and medieval times, able to draw many pilgrims and their money to whatever place claimed to own them.  And the enterprising market easily provided what the customer wanted, in the days before carbon dating and DNA testing.

In any case, the belt was supposedly taken to Constantinople in the 5th century, and this Russian icon depicts its placing in the Church of the Khalkoprateia there.  The vyaz inscription at the top says:

ПОЛОЖЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНАГО ПОЯСЯ ПРЕЧИСТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ В ХАЛКОПРAТIИ
POLOZENIE CHESTNAGO POYASYA PRECHISTUIYA BOGORODITSUI V KHALKOPRATIY

“Placing of the Honorable Belt of the Most Pure Mother of God in the Khalkoprateia.”

Later it was supposedly taken to Mount Athos, where one part of it was said to be kept in a cross and the other part in a reliquary (kibotos).

Now as one can tell, these old traditions are confused and contradictory, and certainly should not be taken as literal history, but rather seen as a part of all the fables and tales of commonly false relics that were a standard part of Christian belief and devotion — whether in the “Orthodox” East or Catholic West — in earlier times.

Here is a 16th century painting by the Venetian artist Palma il Vecchio (c. 1480-1528) — Palma the Elder –, showing a “Western” version of the legend of the giving of the belt of Mary (or if you prefer a fancier term, the “Holy Cincture”).  It used to be called the “Holy Girdle,” but the pictures that raised in the mind were too peculiar for that term to be used in modern times.

 

 

 

WHEN IS SALT NOT SALTY?

Here is a Russian icon of Ioann Zlatoust — John the “Golden-mouthed,” better known as John Chrysostom:

(Photo courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

We are today primarily interested in the text on the book he holds:

(Courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

Here it is, with the portion seen on the book in bold type:

Вы есте соль земли: аще же соль обуяет, чим осолится? Ни во чтоже будет ктому, точию да и-[зсыпана будет вон и попираема человеки.]

It is the text of Matthew 5:13:

You are the salt of the earth. If however the salt loses its strength, how shall it be salted? It will then be good for nothing but to be t[hrown out and trampled by men.]”

Perhaps you noticed some slight spelling variations in the text.  These are common in old inscriptions.

Now why should this text be included on an icon of John Chrysostom?  Well, most likely because he included a discussion of it in one of his homilies:

What then? did they restore the decayed? By no means; for neither is it possible to do any good to that which is already spoilt, by sprinkling it with salt. This therefore they did not. But rather, what things had been before restored, and committed to their charge, and freed from that ill savor, these they then salted, maintaining and preserving them in that freshness, [633] which they had received of the Lord. For that men should be set free from the rottenness of their sins was the good work of Christ; but their not returning to it again any more was the object of these men’s diligence and travail.

John seems not to have understood the original meaning of the saying, and in fact there is much controversy even today about what was meant by salt losing its strength or savor, because salt remains — well, salt, no matter how old it is.   It does not lose its strength or savor.  Some think that the “salt” mentioned was not at all what we know as salt, but rather a kind of substance used to fertilize the fields — a fertilizer that could lose its strength.  But no firm and definitive solution to the puzzle of this text seems yet to have been found — so it remains obscure.

THE “MOVIE STAR” SAINT: ALEXANDER NEVSKIY

Those of you familiar with cinematic history will know the famous 1938 black and white movie Alexander Nevsky, with its remarkable musical score by Sergei Prokofiev.  It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein.  Those of you who have not seen it may watch the film (with English subtitles) here:

Many of those familiar with the movie have no idea that Alexander Nevsky/Nevskiy (Александр Невский ) is also considered a saint in Russian Orthodoxy, and there are many icons of him.  Here is one example, from the year 1880:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Two icons are above him:  the “Iverskaya” Marian icon on the left, and the standard “Lord Almighty” icon of Jesus at right.

Alexander Nevskiy was a prince in the great northern city of Novgorod during the time of the Mongol invasions in the early 1200s.  At that time Eastern Orthodox Novgorod was threatened on the West by Roman Catholic Swedes — the “Latins.”

Before Alexander went out to battle the Swedes, he went into the Church of Holy Wisdom to pray, and when he came out, he is said to have roused his men by saying,

Не в силе Бог, а в правде. Иные — с оружием, иные — на конях, а мы Имя Господа Бога нашего призовем!

God is not in power, but in truth.  Others are in armor — others are on horses — but we shall call on the name of our Lord God.

Tradition relates that one of his soldiers saw a kind of vision — a boat floating upon the water, and in the boat — dressed in crimson robes — were the first two “Russian” saints, the Princes Boris and Gleb. That was considered a sign that God was with Novgorod against its enemies, and Alexander and his forces defeated the Swedes in a battle at the Neva River on Juy 15, 1240.  That of course gave him his title — Alexander “of the Neva” — Alexander Nevskiy.  At the time, Alexander is said to have been only 19.  There is some doubt among historians as to the historical authenticity of this victory over the Swedes, but it is part of the traditional tale of Alexander.

To film buffs, however, his most famous battle was that against the Teutonic Knights, whom he met at frozen Lake Peipus/Peipsi — which the Russians call  Чудское озеро/Chudskoe ozero –on April 5th of 1242.  I won’t tell you what happened there, because if you have not seen the Eisenstein movie, I don’t want to give a “spoiler.”

Alexander developed good relations with the Mongol Golden Horde, and paid regular tribute as a vassal prince.  He was made Grand Prince (Velikiy Knyaz) of Vladimir in 1252, and died some 12 years later.  Shortly before his death he became a monk and put on a monk’s habit.

Alexander was officially “glorified” as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 1547, and is commonly given the title Благоверный Великий Князь/Blagovernuiy Velikiy Knyaz’ — “Pious/Orthodox Great Prince.”

There is of course much more to his traditional “life,” and this is just a brief summary.

As the centuries passed, Alexander became an important national symbol for Russia.  He is depicted in two quite different ways.   Early icons and those of the Old Believers show him dressed as a monk, as in this 16th century Moscow icon that titles him Blagovernuiy Knyaz’ Velikiy Alexandr Nevskiy Chudotvorets — “Pious Prince Great Alexander Nevskiy, Wonderworker.”

Post-schism State Church iconography, however, favored showing him in military and royal garb — often standing by a table on which lay his scepter and crown, as in this example from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:

It is only in recent years that the Russian Orthodox Church — the State Church, that is — began advocating a return to the old iconography depicting him as a monk.  Old Believer icons always preferred showing Alexander in a monk’s habit.